The towering edifice of the Basilica is an emblem of the ascendance of religious freedom in Boston. The rich history of the parish extends over 140 years, founded upon the aspirations of early German and Irish immigrants. Carefully chronicled in the publication of The Glories of Mary In Boston is the full story of parish life in the first fifty years. Since 1869, the religious order of the Redemptorists have maintained stewardship of this sacred place. Learn more about our history through the interactive timeline.
Redemptorists Invited to Preach Parish Mission in Boston
The first Redemptorist missionaries arrived in the United States during the 1830’s, establishing themselves with their zeal for preaching. This notoriety was recognized by the Rev. James A. Healy, pastor of St. James’s Church in Boston. He invited the Redemptorists to give a parish mission, in which thousands came to hear nine priests of the order preach. Pleased by the work and spirit of the missionaries, Father Healy recommended to the Bishop that the religious order should establish a mission-house in Boston.
A Site is Chosen
Bishop Williams and the provincial of the Redemptorists agreed that the establishment of a mission-house in the Diocese of Boston would be fruitful to the faithful and work of the missionaries. The Bishop named three places, among them was Roxbury. The site known as the Brinley Mansion, offered five acres and desirable views. The large estate included one of the grandest houses that was built in 1723 by prominent English Officer Colonel Francis Brinley. The property was acquired by the Redemptorists on September 25, 1869.
The Mission Church
By February of 1870, the Redemptorists began to build a church and transform the former Brinley Mansion into a religious community. Constructed with a simple wood frame, the church structure was 100 feet long, 48 feet wide and 24 feet high, capable of holding 900 people. Dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, one of the first replica icons to arrive in America came to Boston and was solemnly enthroned at the center of the church on May 28, 1871. Two side altars were dedicated to the Holy Family and St. Patrick. The church was not an ordinary parish in which all sacraments were administered, it was instead limited to penance and Holy Communion. The people named it endearingly after the missionaries who built it, calling it the Mission Church.
A Monument of Faith
After four years of existence, the reputation of the Mission Church grew, attracting immense crowds from all over New England. A simple wooden church was no longer practical to serve the needs of a growing parish. A cornerstone was laid in 1876 for a new grand church made of stone, the foundation of which was the native Roxbury puddingstone. On April 7, 1878 the new church was solemnly dedicated. The building’s Romanesque style was designed by well known architects William Shickel and Isaac Ditmars of New York at a cost of $200,000. The original design did not include twin spires – these were added later in 1910.
Dedication of the Organ
Built by the firm of Geo S. Hutchings as their Opus 410, the magnificent organ was dedicated on September 26, 1897. Due to it’s size and complexity, the organ required more than a year to complete. It was one of the first organs in the country to successfully use electric action, which Hutchings invented and patented. The organ has 3 manuals and pedals, 5 divisions, 62 stops, 75 ranks and close to 3,200 pipes.
A Catholic Education Established
Religion was a subject that could not be taught in the public school system. The establishment of parochial schools in the late 1800’s provided an opportunity for the Catholic Church to instill religious values and morality as part of the curriculum. Mission Grammar School was completed in 1889, located behind the church on Smith Street. With 24 classrooms to accommodate 1,200 pupils, the School Sisters of Notre Dame arrived from Baltimore to begin the new endeavor of educating the parish’s boys and girls.
A Parish Clubhouse
As the center for spiritual and social well being of parishioners, the church served as an orientation point for new immigrants to establish themselves in America. By 1900, Boston continued to see a surge in the immigrant population, most notably from Ireland. St. Alphonsus Hall was opened as a social gathering place, a parish clubhouse that was an early form of a community center. It housed a library, meeting hall, gym, bowling alley and large theater.
The Passion Play “Pilates Daughter” written by Rev. Francis Kenzel, C.Ss.R. was performed for the first time in St. Alphonsus Hall in 1902. With an all female cast, the fictitious drama centers around the daughter of Pilate, Claudia, who threw a rose at Christ as he passed by carrying his cross. The flower touches Jesus and has miraculous powers that impact the lives of many. As a central attraction during Lent, parishioners acted out the play every year for over 50 years until performances ended in the late 1960’s.
The nearly 180 year old Brinley Mansion that was converted into a residence for the priests was no longer in a fit state to house a religious community. The wooden structure was replaced in 1903 by large brick building that featured the latest modern indoor plumbing, electricity, personal apartments, as well as a library and private chapel. Today, the Rectory continues to be used to house ten priests in residence as well as serve as a house of formation to Redemptorist seminarians studying at Boston College and St. John’s Seminary in Brighton.
Addition of Twin Spires
The impressive twin spires that bring such a commanding presence to the facade of the church were not part of the original design. The addition was added in 1910 to symbolize the height of the growing Catholic community. The eastern cross is 213 feet above the ground; the western, 215; the difference is due to the slope of the grade. Each tower weighs exactly 3,502 tons and the western tower houses twelve bells.
Golden Jubilee Celebration
To mark the first fifty years of the parish, a large Golden Jubilee ceremony was organized. Thousands from near and far gathered to celebrate the work of the Redemptorists and the spiritual house of God named under the title of its Patroness, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. An estimated sixty thousand people attended and processed through the streets up to Parker Hill.
Mission Church High School
The expansion of the parish’s education system came out of necessity, to provide higher level learning following the completion of grammar school. Under the direction of the Xaverian Brothers, Mission Church High School opened in 1926.
World War II Novena Devotions
The impact of World War II brought over 20,000 people together to attend weekly Novena devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help each Wednesday. Eight services were offered each week, special buses and the lower church were used to accommodate the crowds.
Mission Church Elevated to Honorary Title of Basilica
His Holiness Pope Pius XII elevated the Mission Church to the title of Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. In order to merit such an honor, a church requires an imposing architecture, a substantial number of visitors, and an important spiritual treasure. As custom requires, symbols of this title are prominently displayed in the sanctuary and include the Umbrellino , a half opened umbrella shaped canopy to shield the Pope if he should visit, a Coat of Arms, and a portable belfry to ring out to the faithful. There are 74 Basilica designations in the United States.
Mission Church High School Closed
After 66 years of service to the parish, declining enrollment at Mission Church High School led to its closure at the end of the school year in 1992. The building was sold to the Boston Public School system and continues to be operated today as New Mission High.
End of An Era
Rev. Joseph Manton, C.Ss.R. became well known across New England as the “Novena priest”. For 59 years, he led the weekly Novena services in honor of our Lady of Perpetual Help. His unique preaching style was appealing to all who came to the Basilica each week, listened on the radio, watched on TV, or read in one of Fr. Manton’s many books. The legacy of his vocation lives on today in the many who recall the Novena priest.
Lower Church Renovation
St. Gerard’s Chapel in the lower church was repurposed to create classroom space for Mission Grammar School. A large community space was also created to become a Parish Center, allowing parish groups to utilize the space for meetings and special events.
Lower Church Complex Sold
From 1970-2000, the parish and neighborhood went through a period of decline. Low enrollment in the school and fewer parishioners to utilize community spaces spurred a transition to sell the lower church complex on Smith Street, consisting of St. Alphonsus Hall, Convent, and original Grammar School building to a developer. School operations were consolidated to the Guild building and lower church. Today, redevelopment projects have brought the neighborhood back to life. Harvard Public Health has renovated and moved into the old Grammar School building. The former convent and St. Alphonsus Hall sites are vacant and gutted with an uncertain development future
Kennedy Funeral Held at Basilica
The funeral of long time Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy was held at the Basilica and televised across the world. Kennedy often prayed at the Basilica while his daughter received cancer treatments in the nearby Longwood medical area. He also made several visits after his brain cancer diagnosis.
Many noted dignitaries and elected officials came to pay tribute at his funeral. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden as well as former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter were in attendance.
For over 140 years, the Redemptorists continue to run the diverse parish that is Boston’s Basilica. We welcome visitors from all over the world and invite the residents of Greater Boston to worship with us each week. Mission Grammar School continues operation with a strong connection to the Basilica, offering classes from pre-k through 8th grade.